Beta readers (or betas) and alpha readers are two types of editors that writers (both fanfic and professional) often work with. However, both terms have a wide variety of meanings and not everyone uses them to mean the same thing. Some people even use the two terms interchangeably.
Some of you may use the same term to mean two different things (or different terms for the same thing). So check out these links and definitions to give you some ideas and help inform the dialogue you will need to have with your alpha, beta, cheerleader, etc.!
Alpha Readers and Beta Readers A blog post about what each does and some common definitions.
The Wikipedia Entry on Beta Readers As you can see, this gets confusing becuase Wikipedia says alpha reader and beta reader are essentially interchangeable terms.
Writing Excuses Episode 5:33 - Alpha Readers A podcast on using alpha readers, finding alpha readers, etc.
Confusing? Yes, it can be. So let's set some ground rules for what we mean on omgspnbigbang when we're talking about alphas and betas. Interested?
As a good rule of thumb, think of it this way:
An alpha reader (or sounding board or cheerleader) is usually involved before your story draft is done, or at least before you are ready to send it to a beta. An alpha reader may help prompt you or pick a story. An alpha reader can offer advice about whether you should do x or y in a story. An alpha reader can cheer you on. An alpha reader can help you with plotting, or let you know if the way you're currently thinking of getting from point a to point b makes sense. An alpha reader might help you whip your nonlinear narrative into a shape that makes more sense or is easier for readers to follow. An alpha reader might also give you ideas about how to write your way out of that corner you've backed yourself into.
An alpha reader does not have to do all (or most) of these things, these are just ideas of what alpha readers may do for some writers. The list isn't exhaustive, either.
Not everyone uses alpha readers (and you don't have to). A good alpha reader (or cheerleader or sounding board) will help you out and help you get your story finished... they will not try to take over your fic or make it their own.
You notice I am also using the terms "cheerleader" and "sounding board" in there, well, that's because sometimes cheerleaders or other trusted friends may do a lot of the work that alpha readers do without actually reading the fic. Some people would still call those folks alpha readers, some wouldn't.
Let me give you a real life example. When I write, I have a few trusted friends with whom I often discuss or brainstorm my story ideas. A couple of them are fellow writers so we often do this sort of thing for each others' stories. Sometimes this means we literally just chat in person out loud about our ideas. More often this means we have a gchat session where I type out my ideas and ask for feedback, or I present a dilemma I'm having with character development or plot or story flow and we bounce around ideas. Sometimes they might not see or read a single word of my actual draft story until much later on when it's essentially ready to beta, but they may have a profound impact on helping me make decisions about the nuts and bolts of how the story is put together or how the plot unfolds. I would consider these people alphas or betas, but you might not.
On the other hand a beta reader typically helps out after your story is done, or is more done. Betas often help with a variety of tasks from usage and vocabulary, spelling and grammar, punctuation, and other things that polish your fic and make it better. For example, my betas are always tasked with the truly miserable job of trying to find all the times I've flipflopped my character names (e.g., calling Dean "Sam" or Jared "Jensen"... you get the picture). Betas might point out that you've used the word "segue" 75 times in 2 pages and might want to change some of them to something else to break up the repetition or that you've been using more adverbs ending in "-ly" than is strictly advisable and might want to pick some more specific verbs. A beta might also help you avoid common writing traps such as using too many euphemisms ("the older man," "the younger man," "the hunter," etc., instead of a character's name) or help you keep track of your pronouns.
Sometimes betas give more big-picture help and may essentially act like an alpha reader and beta reader combined. Sometimes betas help with story structure issues when you're doing things like thinking about moving scenes around, or trying to figure out how to tie in flashbacks (sometimes alpha readers do this, sometimes both alphas and betas do, sometimes they're the same person or people, it's really up to you and what happens with your story). Depending on how you write your story (are you a linear writer?) and how much you've added or subtracted in the editing process, this may make more sense for a beta to do than an alpha.
Betas may help you identify plot holes or story flow issues, but then again sometimes alpha readers will have done this already.
Betas also often help out with continuity errors. This can be everything from helping you keep track of the spellings of minor characters' names, to reminding you that 60 pages ago you said the story was taking place in summer in Alabama and now two weeks of narrative time have passed and your characters are caught in a blizzard, to helping you with those all-too-pesky sex scene details like whether character A just jumped character B's bones through a table while still wearing pants. (You get the picture.) Some writers like to send chapters or scenes to betas as they get finished (or as the writer finishes their first edit on each chapter), so some betas do work on stories before they're "done." Some betas have a more limited role and essentially proof-read the fic.
Some people work with one beta, some with multiple betas. Some people use different betas for different things. For example, I'm a writer from the U.S., so if I was writing a story set in the UK, I might send the story to one beta to "brit pick" it, but to another beta for the SPAG (that's short for "spelling, punctuation, and grammar," if you were wondering), and if my story was an historical epic, I might have yet another beta for the historical accuracy stuff. Setting a story in a city you don't know that well? You might find a beta just to work on local knowledge like what restaurants a character might eat at, what bus route they might take, what things look/sound/smell like, or if your characters can really get from point a to point b in 5 minutes.
The spn_j2_bigbang challenge does require that you use a beta, but there are no rules for what a beta has to do. As a rule of thumb, to say your story was beta'd, that would at least mean it was proofread by someone else to check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. How far you go and how much editing you do beyond that is really up to you and your beta(s).
Now, some food for thought...
As a writer you never have to do what an alpha or beta recommends. It's your story. Not theirs. Feel free to disagree, disregard, and do your own thing, especially on the big picture stuff. Betas (and alphas) are not infallible. Some things are a matter of taste and well, no one story is ever going to suit everyone's tastes (make sure it suits yours). Other issues are a matter of hot and fierce debate among editors and writers and you're never going to get everyone to agree. It's your story, remember that. Your first and most important audience should always be you.
I know some people have said that they are afraid to work with alphas or betas because they're afraid their story ideas will be stolen. Well, I can't make you work with an alpha, and I certainly can't dictate anyone's behavior, but I will say this. There are no original ideas. There are just original ways to put ideas together. Maybe you inspire your beta to write something. Maybe your beta inspired you. Maybe you read someone else's story and got an idea. Great! Go for it! Maybe you read Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and inspired a modern day J2 story. Fabulous! You can always give credit where credit is due. That's what author's notes are for. As long as you're not committing plagiarism (i.e., outright stealing someone's words or story outline), you're doing fine. A hundred people can read the same prompt and write 100 very different stories. As long as you're not copying or stealing go do your thing (and do give credit if someone inspired you or helped you or prompted you).
Of course, if you're a beta or a writer and you get inspired by something in your writer's or beta's (or someone else's) story and decide to write your own take some aspect of it, it is probably a very good idea to run this past them and make sure they're okay with it. Every writer and editor has their own comfort levels, whether they are reasonable or not and whether or not you agree with them. Use common sense and be respectful. Sometimes two people (or twenty or 2,000) get near-identical ideas for stories at the exact same time. That's okay. You can always explain that you had the ideas independent of each other. You're two different people, your stories will be different (quite possibly really, really different), even if they're about the exact. same. thing.
After all, we're writing mostly fanfic here. That means we're already riffing off someone else's work and ideas. There are some writers out there who are very sensitive to this they notoriously do not allow any fanfiction of their own works and get bent out of shape if anyone even writes something remotely similar. There are some fanfic writers who are really possessive of their ideas too, and it is completely okay if you are one of them. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some writers who turn their works into open universes and encourage any and all comers to write in them. It's okay if that's how you roll too. Most of us fall somewhere in between. (And that's fine too!)
So what to do? Communication is key. Be up front. Be honest. Explain where your concerns and limitations are as a writer and as an editor. If you and your beta (or alpha) don't mesh, then go ahead and terminate that relationship. (But be polite about it, 'kay?) Don't make each other miserable clashing over the rights to ideas or oxford commas. This is supposed to be fun!!! Writers, it's your story. Betas, you're volunteers. Neither of you has to take the other's crap, so please play nice, be good, and use common sense.
Okay, okay, tl;dr, and I'm getting preachy and that's just not cool.
There are tons more posts and blogs and podcasts and resources out there on writing and editing and betaing and working with alpha readers. I encourage you all to go seek some out. Or check out this this awesome post by fellow omgspnbigbanger dear_tiger on how to establish a good writer/beta relationship.
This post will be followed by three more: one for writers seeking betas (and alphas or cheerleaders), one for betas (or alphas or cheerleaders) offering their services, and one for general questions about editing, betaing, etc.
If you have general comments or questions, feel free to put them in the comments here!